Skirmish at Heklara

James C. Glass

July 1, 2021

Blood-red light spilled on hot faces as the echelon of Drop Probes turned north on final approach. Giant Procirus rose to greet them, to warm the faces of the many that might die that day. The three hundred troops inside the Probes were young, hand-picked and just out of jump school. It was their first day of real combat, not the usual mop-up operation. Strong resistance was expected, and the sharp stench of fear filled their nostrils as they made a final weapons check. They joked nervously about snake odors and made bets as to which squad would make it first to the airfield beyond Heklara. The reptilian invaders who had occupied the Terran colony of Torontos were now in retreat after a three-year war. Payback time had finally arrived.

Velora Nett snapped a black magazine into her MAW-44 and released the safety. The assault module pulled back on her neck, and her spine was hurting. She let out a deep lungful of air with a whoosh, swallowed hard to keep down the contents of a pre-dawn breakfast and tried not to look at the others. We’re all scared shitless, she thought. Why can’t we admit it?

“Up and on! Two minutes to drop!” Colonel Teg Andrist walked down the center aisle as they stood up clumsily, turning to present modules for inspection. There was a quick inspection of thrusters and para-sail packs; a word of encouragement, a pat on each helmet. As squad leader, Velora was first in line. With the others watching, Andrist turned her around to face him and put his hands on her shoulders. “Wish your dad was alive to see this. Kick some snake ass today, Corporal!”

“Yes sir!”

He continued down the line. “You are Jump Group One of the Twenty-First Hestidian Airborne Division. You are the best there is!”

“Yes sir!” they all screamed.

“I know this as fact, because I have personally trained all of you. You are the Banchees, and today you will kill Kraa. Let me hear it!”

“Kraaaaaa!” they screamed in unison. For that instant, the fear was gone. In another instant, it would return.

“Load and lock!” Andrist stalked back towards the control room as thirty MAW-44 bolts slammed home. “Drop position—move!”

Clumsily they stood up, leaning forward against the heavy weight of the modules on their backs, hunching over to carefully step down into the drop bay running the entire length of the Probe. They sat down, legs stretched before them.

“Hook up!” Andrist opened the control room door and stood in the doorway, bracing himself. “Thirty seconds to drop!”

Velora plugged in her thruster, clutched her heavy weapon to her and remembered the look on her father’s face the day she had graduated. He had come up to the platform, his uniform covered with battle ribbons, eyes glistening as he pinned the hawk and lightning bolts on her lapel. Her brother Tal, dear gentle Tal who should have been there in her place, watched from the audience. He came up afterwards to give her a kiss and a hug, and then disappeared into the crowd, away from his father’s stern face. She had been given special applause for she was only the third woman to graduate from jump school. Now she wondered if she was the only one left alive. She looked up at Colonel Andrist. Someday, she thought, I will command a drop.

“Visors down! And kill Kraa!”

The floor dropped from beneath them and a shockwave of air hit their chests as the thrusters came on. Velora swung to her right, taking her central place in the delta-wing formation dropping towards the valley below. They had come out at seven thousand feet, heading north. Low-lying hills were on either side of them, and straight ahead was the village of Heklara, now occupied by retreating Kraa survivors left to protect their last airfield beyond. She counted three Kraa Gull fighters and two S-10 Chugs before the concrete strip was obscured by the village, and then they were coming in low and taking forward fire as the lead unit in, followed by nine other drops. They were The First. Velora felt pride surge within her, even as thermite fire rose to meet their attack.

A human being next to her exploded, spraying Velora with blood and shredded tissue. She gasped, aimed her weapon from the hip and fired a burst towards the Kraa perimeter around the village. Dust swirled from the steel splinters of the Reaper rounds she fired and a reptilian face disappeared in gore. She hit the ground on the run as the thrusters shut down and pounded on the release catch twice before the heavy module popped off, suddenly feeling light and fast and emptying two magazines as she moved forward. The Kraa were falling back towards the colony village they had occupied and a moment later she was chasing them, looking straight ahead, not noticing the spider-traps opening up around them on the hillsides and spilling forth the hundreds of Kraa hidden there. She didn’t notice until Reapers and Red-Dots were tearing into her squad from all sides, bodies exploding like bombs or bursting into flames. Everywhere she turned there were Kraa, firing at close range. Everywhere she turned there was carnage, bleeding corpses that were once human beings for whom she was responsible. The Kraa streamed down hillsides from every direction, screaming victory, tearing at torn bodies with sharp claws.

And Velora Nett ran for her life.

She sprinted towards her right, around the base of a hill, shredding two Kraa coming at her and running like she had never run before. In only seconds it was suddenly quiet, except for the pounding of her boots on hard ground. No gunfire, no screams of death, only silence—but when she stopped, she heard the faint shrill victory cries of the Kraa and knew full well what they were doing to the wounded or any other survivors. She ran again, following the line of hills until she could no longer hear the horrible sounds of the Kraa, and hid herself between three large boulders near a summit overlooking the village. Deep in shadow, she cried bitterly. Her comrades were dead—and she had run away.

* * *

Night came, blessing her with darkness. Velora ate a cracker, drank some water and listened for the slightest sound. At midnight, she heard something: a scratching on rock and then breathing. She leveled her weapon downhill towards inky darkness, held her breath and watched something crawl towards her. A face. Human. She called out softly, “Over here, quick, in the rocks!”

A boy, younger than herself and smeared with blood and dirt, scrambled up to her and collapsed at her side. “Oh, is it good to find someone else out here. I thought I was all alone.” Immediately, with the sound of his voice and his delicate face, he reminded Velora of her younger brother.

“Where did you come from? I thought everyone else was dead!”

“I’m radioman for drop four. We got caught right in the middle. About half of our unit pulled back and got away with the rest of the drops, but I was forward with my corporal when the snakes started coming out of the ground all around us. They got the corporal, and I ran like hell. Most of their fire seemed directed towards the first units. Is that where you were?”

“Drop one. I’m Nett. Velora. Corporal. Your radio still work?” She pointed to the mound on his back.

“Haven’t used it yet. Think we should try it?”

“No, we’ll wait until light. The village is just over the hill, and I want to see what’s going on first. You got a name?”

“Private Avan Hansold, ma’am. I’ve heard about you. Your old man’s a general or something.”

“Make that Vel or Corporal, Private. I’m not an officer.”

Avan grimaced. “Sorry—Corporal.”

Velora smiled faintly. “Yes, my father was a general, Gera Twenty-Third Skyhawks Division.” Survived the war only to die of a heart attack, she thought. Just as well. Now he doesn’t have to know his daughter ran from a fight and left people to die.

“First ones in on Torontos when the Kraa first invaded in full force. Boy, that must have been something.”

“Yeah. Look, we’ve got to move to the top of the hill and see what’s going on. You have maps?”

The boy nodded. “And a recorder. Sure looks bare up there. No cover at all.”

“We’ll drag some brush up with us, enough to cover up with if a Gull comes over.”

They left the rocks and crawled on hands and knees to the top of the hill. There was no dried brush to be found, and they huddled in a shallow depression on the summit. It was totally exposed to view from above as they peered down towards the village. Velora scanned the visible and infrared spectrum with her binoculars, sweeping the valley. Below her, green figures moved on the hillsides, popping into the ground and out of view. In the village, two Chugs were moving into a street facing the valley, and a crude barricade had been restored there. Figures scurried around in the village square and then suddenly came together like a herd of animals being driven. Velora zoomed in with the binoculars and saw a group of adult villagers and children being herded by four Kraa. “Uh oh, they’ve got civilians rounded up. And the Kraa are going back into their spider traps again. Do they really think that can work a second time? What we need to do is call down some microwave and boil those hills.”

“So give me a frequency,” said Avan.

“No call now. I don’t like those civvies being down there. Another attack and they’ll all be killed for sure. But set it for thirty-five-fifty-five, and be ready.”

“Yes, Corporal.”

She looked at Avan over her shoulder. “Call me Vel. Look, we can clean those hills with a call, but I need to see what they’re setting up in the village. We’ve got to get closer, maybe even into town. You with me for that?”

“Not too crazy about it, but you’re the corporal.”

“Good. Best to move in now and get settled before sunrise. Let’s see those maps.”

Velora pointed with gloved fingers. “Here, here and here is where they’ve dug spider traps. We’ll want to bracket all these hills. Write down the coordinates now so you’ll be ready.”

Avan did as he was told, quickly yet carefully. Velora watched him work, struck again by how much he reminded her of her brother: quiet, thoughtful, contemplating his drawings or lost in music, his dream world taking him away from a father who talked only about war. Sweet Tal, who was supposed to be the warrior but couldn’t be. And then the Kraa invasion of Torontos Colony had come, and there was a war for a daughter to fight.

It remained to be seen if Velora Nett could be the warrior her father had expected. At the moment, she was filled with doubt.

They crawled back to the base of the hill and circled towards the airfield, staying high enough to see the entire village. Small fires burned along the airfield, dimly lighting a line of Kraa shelters. Guards walked randomly around a trio of Gulls parked nearby, and two missile and Gatling-platformed Chugs blocked the main street of the town. Velora made notes on everything and checked coordinates on Avan’s maps before they moved on. They came to a shed at the edge of town, behind a darkened house that had shown lights earlier in the evening after the Kraa had herded the civilians into it. There had been muffled shots, and later the Kraa had left. Something bad had happened in that place, but it was close. They hid in the shed until just before dawn, and then scuttled into the house in hopes of getting a better look at the streets. What they got was a look at another horror of war.

The stench hit them as they entered through the back door of the unlocked building and worked their way cautiously down a darkened hall, past a small kitchen heaped with debris and garbage. They entered a larger room at the front of the house. There were piles of bodies—men, women and children, Torontons, all of them third-wave humans with large, dark eyes engineered especially for the weakly lit planet of a red dwarf. They had come here for a new life and found death instead, their blood now covering the floor and walls and windows of the house.

Avan turned and threw up in one corner of the room. He wretched and wretched until nothing more would come up, then wiped his mouth on his sleeve, ashamed, and moved near Velora, who was at a window facing the street. “Doesn’t this have any effect on you, or is it just all in a day’s work?” he asked bitterly.

“Lucky all I’ve had to eat in twelve hours is a cracker. Besides, seeing this makes it easier to kill Kraa when the time comes.”

“Yeah? Well, it doesn’t help me much, but then I’m not in for life. You career people are hard asses.”

Velora looked at him sharply. “You don’t know shit, Private. And what did you expect from the Kraa? They happen to be fond of killing, and right now I feel the same way.”

“Oh, Jesus,” said Avan.

“What the hell did you get into this war for?”

“Nobody asked me. I was drafted.”

“Oh. Tough deal. But you and your radio are important to me right now, and I want you sticking it out, okay?”

“I’m still here, aren’t I?”

“Get over here by the window, but keep low. There’s a Chug up the street that can look right in here. Another one left of me, just sittin’ there. We’ve got to get a message out about those spider traps, so start your recorder. It has to be quick to minimize interception, so set up the transmission for a half-second pulse.”

Avan did as he was told. “If they’ve changed the entry code since yesterday, we’re dead.” He punched in the code letters, set the beeper to indicate a coming transmission and turned to hand Velora the recorder. She talked into it for nearly a minute, giving the coordinates of the hills, the approximate number of Kraa hidden there, the placement of Chugs in the town and the fact that they had found slaughtered citizens.

They waited. The engine of the Chug up the street suddenly growled into life. Velora peered over the window sill. “They’re loading up. Supplies coming out of a house across the street, carried by civilians. Only a few Kraa guards—whoa!” She ducked her head down into the gloom. “Almost saw me. Looked right over here for a second. I see four guards, maybe a dozen civvies.”

The radio chirped. Avan checked the return code showing on the display, then jacked in the recorder and with the push of a button transmitted Velora’s one-minute message in a single half-second burst. In a few minutes there was another chirp as the return message arrived. Avan listened intently, Velora still watching the street. “Vel, I’ve got Colonel Andrist here. He says sit tight. They’re comin’ in at oh-six-hundred, and he’s called in a microwave sweep from low orbit at that time.”

“Okay, we stick it out here,” said Velora. And do what? she thought. How do I make up for running from a battle? Die?

There was a sound from the kitchen at the back of the house, a rattling sound, and then a crunch, like someone stepping on broken glass. A shadow moved in the gloom of the hallway.

Velora swung the MAW-44 towards the hallway, pressing her back against a wall. “Avan, stay right where you are.”

His eyes were the size of a credit coin.

The shadow came slowly down the hall and paused at the edge of the room. Large, liquid eyes gleamed dully in the pre-dawn glow. A tiny girl stood there, barefoot, filthy dress brief enough to show dirty arms and pencil-thin legs. Her thumb was in her mouth and she looked straight at Velora, considering her for a moment, and then she walked over to the far corner of the room to rummage around under a pile of broken bodies. She pushed and tugged at something, and came up with a blond-haired doll covered with blood. She hugged it to herself, and looked at Velora again with huge eyes.

“Oh my God,” said Velora. “That must have been her mother.”

The little girl started back towards the kitchen, but stopped when Velora beckoned to her. “Come here, darlin’. I’m a friend, and we won’t hurt you. Do you want something to eat? Here.” Velora took a ration bar out of her pocket and held it out to the girl. The child hesitated for an instant, then walked boldly over to Velora and took the bar from her hand. Only at that instant did her thumb come out of her mouth — she tore the wrapper off with her teeth and began to eat. Velora stroked her hair, smiling at Avan. “Tough little kid, a real survivor. How long you been in here, hon’?”

The child remained silent and the ration bar disappeared quickly. She stood there waiting for more, and Velora fumbled in her pack. “Can you talk to me?”

“Here,” Avan said, and he handed a ration bar over to the child, who took it without looking at him.

Silently, the doll hugged to her breast, eyes never leaving Velora’s face, the little girl wolfed down the second ration bar. Velora sat the child down on the floor next to her and peeked out the window again. “Still loading. More guards now. I think they’re getting ready to move out.”

She checked her watch. “Less than an hour until the attack and all we can do is sit here.”

“That’s just fine with me,” Avan said, a little too loudly for Velora’s peace of mind. “All this draftee wants is to get home alive.”

“And I don’t? That’s pretty stupid, private.” Velora kept the tone of her voice amiable. “I think the only difference between us is commitment.”

“Maybe. I don’t have to prove anything to anybody in this war. I serve my time, keep my skin on and go home. You career people, this is your life — all this killing. I think it stinks.”

“Keep it down,” Velora said, staring at him coldly. “You think it’s all about killing, is that it? Well, let me tell you, Private, this is my first major combat mission and I’m just as scared as you are, but I’m never going to get ahead in any game if I’m dead. As far as proving myself, I didn’t do very well at that when I ran away from the fight yesterday,” she whispered sharply.

Avan’s cynical smile vanished in a blink. “Run away? What were you supposed to do, stay there and die? That’s not commitment, that’s stupid. People were running for their lives all over the place.”

“Not corporals,” said Velora, looking at the floor.

“Oh shit,” mumbled Avan. “I rest my case.”

Velora sniffed disdainfully and muffled her voice with a gloved hand. “You remind me of my brother, the would-be artist. Nice, gentle guy who hates everything my father ever stood for and isn’t afraid to say so. He was the one who was supposed to be the soldier, not me. But he’s not here and I am, and whatever happens, I’ll do what I have to do. Got that?”

Seconds stretched to one horrible moment of stunned silence, and then Avan smiled at her sadly, hands playing with the controls on the radio. “Yeah, I’ve got it. Among my several weaknesses, I also have a big mouth. I’m here too, Vel. I just want to go home alive,” he whispered back.

“Okay, then — we just stay here quietly until our people are in the street. There won’t be many Kraa out there once the hills are cleaned, but if we’re spotted, it only takes one salvo from a Chug and they’ll take us home in a bottle. And we’ve got this little girl here. She understands everything we’re saying, you know?” She looked down at the tiny child snuggled against her, a death-grip on the doll with one hand and the thumb of the other firmly locked in a speechless mouth. The pretty head turned again towards the bloody remains in one corner of the room. Velora turned her around, hugged her tightly, looked into those sad, dark eyes and swallowed hard.

“God, Avan,” she whispered, “she’s only a baby.”

Velora checked her watch. Only forty-five minutes until the microwave burn. But from the instant she looked at the watch, it was only fifteen minutes until their own private war with the Kraa began.

* * *

In all the horror she had dozed, awakening with a start when Avan prodded her. He was right next to her under the window, whispering frantically into her ear, “Vel, wake up, there’s screaming out in the street!”

She jumped to a crouch so quickly that the child nearly fell over, gasping in surprise. It was the first sound she had made. Velora peered over the window sill and saw a small group of civilians in a cluster in the middle of the street, surrounded by six armed Kraa. Women and two older children. The Kraa were poking them with their weapons, moving them across the street in a group and directly towards her hiding place. Down the street, the crew of the idling Chug was climbing up onto the machine and dropping down inside it. Directly in front of her, the engine of the previously silent Chug roared into life, and a snake-like arm reached out to slam shut the entrance hatch. The vehicle lurched forward and rolled quickly down the street to her left.

The cluster of terrified civilians drew nearer and Velora could hear the women pleading in their rough, Toronton dialect: “Please, leave us here and save your own lives. Not the children! Please, not the children!” A Kraa growl that was a laugh answered their cries for mercy, and Velora’s face flushed with the sudden realization of what was about to take place. This room in which they had hidden themselves would soon be a killing ground again. The Kraa knew their enemy well: to kill civilians in the open would invite an immediate attack by microwave.

“Avan, take the girl to the kitchen and don’t fire until I do. They’re coming in the front, six of them and a bunch of civvies. Move!”

Avan grabbed the little girl’s hand and duck-walked across body parts and the slippery floor, the child stumbling along behind him. They disappeared down the hallway. Velora backed into a corner by the window, the MAW-44 covering the front door.

There were footsteps by the door and hysterical screaming overwhelmed the growls of the Kraa. The door burst open and the civilians piled in, shrieking at the sight of what awaited them. The guards pushed in behind, teeth flashing from thick, reptilian faces. Women and children stumbled to the far corner of the room, huddling there as the guards, backs turned to Velora, raised their weapons, but at that instant one of the children saw her and pointed. All eyes moved towards Velora’s grim face and the weapon she held as she snapped it on auto and sprayed the enemy with splinters of death. Four of the Kraa went down on their faces in a pulpy mess, and a five-foot section of wall disappeared in smoke. The fifth guard had stationed himself by the hallway, too close to the civvies for a clean shot, and now he was turning, bringing his weapon to bear on her. There was an explosion from the kitchen, and the Kraa’s chest erupted in a fountain of blood and shredded tissue. Avan. First kill.



“Take them out back to the shed now.” Velora jumped up to look outside and stared straight into the face of the sixth Kraa guard, who had remained outside. His claw was a blur, coming straight through the window and grabbing her by the throat, pulling her up on her toes as spots of colorful light danced before her eyes. She rammed the MAW’s muzzle up under his chin and emptied the magazine into his nightmarish head.

“Out the back, out the back!” she screeched at the civilians and then coughed, grabbing at her throat to feel where the guard had clawed her.

The little girl darted into the room and threw herself into the arms of one of the women whom she apparently recognized, the woman sweeping her up with a tearful cry. Women and children stampeded down the hall and out the back door. Outside, the Chug that had been passing by had now stopped and was backing up across the street and turning towards her. No rotating turret, but it was quickly coming into position for a shot. Velora sprinted from the room and down the hall, slamming the back door closed as she exited and saw Avan herding the civvies into the nearby shed. “This way!” she called to him, and he ran to follow her as she moved away from the shed. They had gone only twenty yards when the house behind them erupted in a ball of fire and then shattered as flying embers.

Reaper fire ripped the ground around them and Velora cried out as a splinter tore across her left cheek. Avan was right behind her when she went in the front door of a house and straight out the back, temporarily hidden from the view of the advancing Chug. They entered the neighboring house from the back and crouched in the kitchen, Velora pulling the radio from Avan’s back. “Tell them what’s going on and get help! In a minute, we’re outta here!”

Avan was sending frantically when she looked out the front window in time to see the house next door destroyed by withering fire from the Chug, which then turned and headed straight towards them. It pulled up close, nearly on the porch of the building. “Thermite!” Velora screamed. “Lock and load, and get out of here!” She pulled a magazine of Red-Dot thermite cartridges from her belt, slapped it into the MAW and leaped back to the kitchen, where Avan was struggling to load up the radio. “Leave it! Let’s go!”

Avan followed her out the door. She turned right and crept up alongside the building. The Chug’s rumble vibrated up through the soles of their boots. She turned over her shoulder and mouthed, “Get anybody?”

“Think so,” Avan mouthed back.

Velora peered around the corner of the building, pulled back and yelled, “Follow me!”

The explosion was deafening as the Chug fired, but by then they were climbing up onto it and the building they had left disappeared in flames. Velora stuck her MAW muzzle into a forward port and fired three times. Screaming came from inside the chug. “Get the hatch, get the hatch!” she yelled.

Avan scrambled to the top hatch as it popped open, a claw outstretched. He pointed his MAW straight down and emptied the entire magazine of thermite cartridges into the living space of the Chug. Flame shot skyward and the claw disappeared. The machine’s surface was suddenly too hot to stand on, but as Avan clambered down he yelled as blood spattered from his left leg below the hip. He fell heavily at Velora’s feet. “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!” he cried, rolling in the red dirt. A Reaper had hit him from the side at close range, well above the knee.

A Kraa came around the Chug, his eyes turned down to sight on Avan, and Velora shot him with a Red-Dot at point blank range, the heavy body flashing to ashes in seconds.

Flames from Kraa cinders licked at her boots as she stepped around the Chug and saw a wedge formation of infantry moving towards her from the airfield. She emptied the Red-Dot magazine at them, five of the heat-seeking thermite projectiles striking home, but still the line of shrieking creatures came on. One hundred yards away, then seventy, then fifty. She fired furiously, mindlessly, magazine after magazine, then scrabbled at her belt and found nothing there. Avan moaned as she tore his ammunition belt from him and grabbed up his MAW. By the time she aimed it, the nearest Kraa was only twenty yards away. She sprayed their ranks with Red-Dots and Reapers, weapon on full automatic, the Kraa now stumbling over the bodies of their dead but still coming, screaming just as when they had come at her from the hills. Save one round for yourself, she remembered.

As she grabbed her last magazine, the ground around the Kraa erupted in a wall of dirt, pieces of shattered bodies flying in all directions. Two D-7s swooped low overhead, spraying the street with their Gatlings, on course for the airfield and releasing their missiles a second later. Flames from exploding Gulls belched into the sky as the two-place fighters turned and came back to tear up the street one more time. Velora crouched behind the Chug. They passed over her, veering sharply left and right over a burning Chug at the edge of the village. Clouds of steam surged up from the hills, punctuated with small jets she knew were microwaved Kraa exploding like boiling water balloons in their spider traps. Through the roiling steam she saw the APDPs coming in, dropping wave after wave of troops that raced towards her. Only then did she glance up the street, and, seeing no life there, got down on her knees beside Avan.

One leg and side were soaked in blood, and his face was ashen-grey. He mumbled something incoherent and his eyes rolled around, not seeing her. “Avan, they’re here, they’re here! Hang on!” She slapped his face once, gently, then a second time, hard. “Don’t you dare die on me now! Don’t you DARE!”

* * *

Colonel Andrist looked up from a table heaped with paper as Velora entered his Quonset and saluted him smartly. He returned the salute and smiled. “Good to see you alive, Corporal. For a minor operation, this thing turned into quite a mess that could have been avoided with some accurate reconnaissance. Still have all your parts?”

Velora took a deep breath, her intestines a tangled knot sending pain messages to every nerve in her body. “Sir—there’s something I have to tell you, and it’s not easy. But I have to do it, sir, with your permission.” She clutched at her pants to keep her hands from shaking.

Andrist leaned back in his chair and made a teepee with his hands in front of his mouth. “Go on,” he said.

“During the attack yesterday, when we were surrounded and the Kraa were all coming at us from the hills, sir, I—I ran. I ran from the fight, sir. I have no excuse. It was—a reaction. I felt I had to get out of there, and I did.”

Andrist chuckled. “Right into the enemy camp, from the sound of it. Bad thing for them.” His smile faded as he saw the look on her face. “What’s your point, Corporal?”

Velora was near tears. “I acted in a cowardly manner, sir. That’s my point.” And that is the end of my career, she thought.

Andrist sighed. “Tell me what happened. Everything.”

And so she told him everything, from the moment she fled until the time she was fighting from behind a burned-out Chug, expecting to die.

“Now, I want you to think about what you just said, and tell me if those were the acts of a coward.”

“Sir, I—”

“They were not, Corporal. I had three hundred people in that attack yesterday, and the only reason any of them came back was because the squad leaders knew when to get the hell out of there and stay alive to fight today. That’s just smart, Corporal. You stayed alive, and today you engaged the enemy on your own terms. And shot the hell out of them. And saved lives. That’s why I’m putting you in for Officers Training School just as soon as I can find the damn form in this mountain of paperwork. Expect your orders to be cut within a week. You have a lot to learn, but you will be one damn fine officer someday. Anything else?”

Velora stared in disbelief. “No, sir. Uh—thank you, sir.”

“Good. That private who was with you is outside. I’ll decorate the both of you when we get back in orbit.” Andrist stood up, reached across the table and touched her bloody cheek. “Nice wound there. Rub a little salt in it, should make an attractive scar. Let the troops know their officer has seen combat. Dismissed.”

Velora turned to leave, still stunned as Andrist said softly, “If the General had seen you out there today, he would’ve bawled like a baby.”

* * *

Avan was lying on a stretcher near the Quonset, attended by a medic. Velora rushed to him and fell to her knees, shouting at the medic, “Is he all right? Is he all right?”

The medic looked bored. “He’s going home. My guess is he’s got a five-year limp ahead of him.”

“There goes my dancing career,” said Avan weakly. “Guess I’ll be an architect instead. Hey, look who’s here!”

Velora looked up, finding herself surrounded by the group of Torontons they had saved from slaughter. The little girl was with them, and she stepped forward with a shy smile. “Her name is Myreika,” one of the women said, “and she wishes to thank you.”

The girl put her bloody arms around Velora’s neck, and pressed against her.

“Oh, darlin’, you’re okay, you’re okay.” Velora hugged the child fiercely, then looked down at Avan’s grinning face.

“Tough guy,” said Avan.

Velora reached down and squeezed his shoulder. “Yeah. And you, too.”

James C. Glass is a former physicist and 1990 grand prize winner of the Writers of the Future Contest. “Skirmish at Heklara” was originally published in Digital Science Fiction #3 (September 2011) and now appears in a 2020 collection of short stories, Strange Worlds, Near and Far.